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“Naatu Naatu” Wasn’t As Groundbreaking At The Oscars As You May Think

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCLA chapter.

“Naatu Naatu” from the hit Telugu movie RRR just won an Oscar for Best Song, becoming the first song from an Indian movie to win the award. There’s just one issue: in the televised performance of it, none of the dancers, especially the leads, were of South Asian descent. In a movie specifically made to show the horrors of colonialism and a patriotic rise against it, it is incredibly ironic that this was how it was showcased on one of the biggest stages in the Western world.

It’s not enough for the performance to be “energetic” like the following Variety tweet claims it to be. It is not representative. It is not representative of the Kuthu folk dance style it is derived from, of the people who are most excited about this award win and of the very message of the movie itself.

In the original movie, the song was performed by actors Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. and the very point of the song is that the Indians outdance the English, causing a sense of pride and unity under the harsh rule of colonialism. Clearly, this message makes no sense in a performance where the leads cannot actually embody that specific Indian patriotism.

It’s further problematic that the leads of the act, Billy Mustapha and Jason Glover, were actively being passed off as brown dancers on-stage. No matter how great of a performance they gave, it feels like a job half done because as long as they “looked” brown, those in charge and The Academy were fine with it. Progress cannot be a façade; it has to be real individual-driven action.

I would also like to note that this is not the fault of the leads or the rest of the cast, but rather those who were in charge of managing the on-stage act. Events like this happen because the people in charge do not speak up or actively reach out to get representation involved in a project.

Even before the televised performance, one of the cast members Lauren Gottlieb, who has worked in India for many years and has knowledge about the film industry, incorrectly referred to “Naatu Naatu” as a Bollywood song in a now-deleted video. Aside from not hiring South Asians, these small accidental words and phrases add up to the rewriting of entire stories. What makes RRR such a breakthrough is that it is from Tollywood, the Telugu film industry, which is finally getting some of the recognition it deserves. This video also featured many of the dance members, which already hinted to choreographer Joya Kazi as to what we could expect from the performance.

Kazi is well-established in Los Angeles and worked on the dances and performances for revolutionary scenes in Hollywood, like the classical dance scene in the Netflix series Never Have I Ever and the Bollywood dance performance Schmidt does for Cece in New Girl. She has been a champion for South Asian representation in Hollywood for a while now, and it’s unfortunate to see how right she was about the lack of “brown bodies” and “representasian.”

The Oscars are held in Los Angeles, and even if the original actors could not be flown out or invited here for the event, there are countless talented South Asian dancers in the Los Angeles area who could’ve taken their place. I understand choreographers wanting to “work with dancers they already know,” but in a moment as significant to the South Asian community as this one, it was not the time to place familiarity over what’s right.

It’s almost laughable how much this situation could have been avoided, but this is why representation matters. This is not change, and honestly, it’s ridiculous that it should even be a question if South Asians should be involved in a project as important as this. I hope this is a wake-up call to The Academy and anyone involved in the performance that winning an Oscar may be the first step to championing South Asian culture in Hollywood, but there is so much more work to be done.

Neeti is a UCLA student who has loved writing ever since she was born, whether that meant composing poetry or writing opinionated articles. She loves learning languages and is currently learning her fifth one. She loves water, hiking, biking, playing with her dog, and listening to music.